Earlier this month, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) hosted its annual Black History Month program, “Contemporary Black Women Inventors.” The event spotlights Black inventors and business personalities across the United States to showcase their legacy contributions to America’s ingenuity and the innovation economy. These events include discussions with remarkable innovators, explorations of entrepreneurship, and seminars focused on how to obtain and use intellectual property, as well as helpful USPTO resources.
Meeting the Challenge
The panelists for this year’s discussion included Dr. Aprille Ericsson, Dr. Aryanna Howard, and Dr. Arlyne Simon. Each inventor discussed their incredible journeys from youth to careers as innovative Black women.
Ericsson was the first woman and first Black woman to receive a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Howard University and the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in engineering as a civil servant at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. As New Business Lead for the NASA GSFC Instrument Systems and Technology Division, she has sought to foster government partnerships that enable industry and small businesses to collaborate with universities to solve strategic R&D challenges faced by United States government agencies. She has won various awards including the NASA Goddard Honor Award and the Women’s Network – Top 18 Women Who Will Change the World. She holds one patent covering a system and method for an integrated satellite platform. She noted that her success was due to her ability to overcome various obstacles in her early life and perseverance in spite of trials and tribulations throughout her life.
Against the Odds
Howard, the founder and Chief Technology Officer of Zyrobotics, a company that uses machine learning and robots to make educational toys for kids, with a particular emphasis on helping those with special needs. In addition, Howard is a professor at Georgia Tech, specializing in the intersection of machine learning and robotics. She is an educator, researcher, and innovator. Her academic career is highlighted by her focus on technology development for intelligent agents that must interact with and in a human-centered world, as well as on the education and mentoring of students in the engineering and computing fields.
Howard has made significant contributions in the technology areas of artificial intelligence, computer vision, and robotics. Her published research, currently numbering over 250 peer-reviewed publications, has been widely disseminated in international journals and conference proceedings. She has over 20 years of R&D experience covering a number of projects that have been supported by various agencies including: National Science Foundation, Procter and Gamble, NASA, ExxonMobil, Intel, and the Grammy Foundation. To date, her unique accomplishments have been highlighted through a number of awards and articles, including highlights in TIME Magazine, Black Enterprise, and USA Today, as well as being recognized as one of the 23 most powerful women engineers in the world by Business Insider and one of the Top 50 U.S. Women in Tech by Forbes. She holds three patents.
During the event, she recalled receiving her first patent as an “incredible experience.” And it is truly incredible, considering the share of U.S. inventors receiving patents who are women increased from 12.1% in 2016 to 12.8% in 2018 and only 4% of those have only women named as inventors – even fewer of those women are Black. However, the gender gap in the number of women inventors who remain active by patenting again within five years is decreasing. For the most recent group of new inventors, 46% of women patented again in the next five years versus 52% of men, according to a recent study by the USPTO. In 1980, the gap was 28% for women versus 38% for men.
Mentorship Moves Mountains
Simon is originally from the Commonwealth of Dominica. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering from Georgia Tech and a doctoral degree in Macromolecular Science and Engineering from the University of Michigan. She is currently a biomedical engineer at Intel’s Health and Life Science business unit and the author of the Abby Invents picture book series.
Eager to inspire more girls to become inventors, Simon founded a multicultural children’s products company called Timouns. To date, Timouns has reached more than 3,500 future inventors. She holds two patents. In 2012, she invented a blood test that detects when cancer patients reject a bone marrow transplant. She was featured as a female innovator in the 2017 Women’s History Month Exhibit at the United States Patent and Trademark Office. She is passionate about global health and STEM education for girls.
When asked if mentorship helped them along the way, each panelist responded that they not only had a mentor, but many mentors throughout their tenure as innovators. Simon also noted that she gives back by being a mentor herself and that young girls especially require mentors in order to ensure America’s innovative future.